Cohabitation Does Not Lead to More Divorce

What Women Really Think
April 16 2012 3:46 PM

News Flash: Shacking Up Does Not Lead to More Divorce

103154842
The “cohabitation effect” is no longer true—the idea is based on old research from the 1980s

Photograph by Alexander Nemenov/AFP/Getty Images

This weekend, the New York Times ran a story called "The Downside of Cohabiting Before Marriage" and conservatives instantly seized on it as more proof of the obvious perils of modern, licentious existence. The author, Meg Jay, was listed as a clinical psychologist and in the manner of all psychologist/writers began with an anecdote of miserable, former cohabiting patient X (“Jennifer”). The point of X’s story was to prove that cohabitation was the marital equivalent of the Hotel California, where young adults looking for a quick hit (less rent, more sex) languish for years, trapped in a “never ending audition to be his wife,” as Jennifer put it. Jay trotted out the usual clichés about women looking at living together as a step toward marriage while men see it as a way of putting off commitment. And then to elevate her argument beyond anecdotal evidence, she cited the famous “cohabitation effect,” a sociological finding that couples who live together are more likely to get divorced.

The problem with all of this is that the “cohabitation effect” is no longer true. The idea is based on old research from the 1980s. Recently Wendy Manning from the Director of the Center for Family and Demographic Research at Bowling Green State University has analyzed couples married since 1996 and found that the cohabitation effect “has almost totally faded. We just can’t detect it anymore.” In the 1980s cohabitation was much less common, so it’s possible that people who did it were somewhat more experimental to begin with. But in the last 10 years, cohabitation has become the norm. Nearly 60 percent of women aged 25-39 have lived with a partner and the number among younger women is nearly 80 percent. So, knowing that the divorce rate is going down, and then doing the simple math, it can’t be true that all those couples are more likely to get divorced, can it?

Advertisement

Why do I care? I’m not especially invested in this debate. I did not live with my husband before we got married and I still don’t really see the appeal—seems like rushing into the less fun bits of a relationship before you have to. But I care because we are once again agonizing about a nonproblem while declining to look at what the real problem is. Cohabitation among people like “Jennifer,” that is, young urban women with enough money and time to see Dr. Jay, is not a problem. The vast majority of women don’t go through the Jennifer train wreck—75 percent live only with the man they marry, and the rest eventually get married to someone.

The train wreck are the 15-20 percent of what sociologists call “serial cohabitors.”  These are women with less money who have children on their own and live with a series of men for two or three months at a time, none of which tend to be the fathers of their children. These are also women who tend never to get married. And unfortunately we live in a marriage obsessed society, so as far as the government is concerned, they are invisible.

Complaining about “the downsides of cohabitation” is a total waste of time. Everyone lives together now before getting married; I have been informed by all my younger friends how grandma it is of me to have done otherwise. What we really should be doing is not trying to wish it away, but embracing it and starting to think about cohabiting families as actual families, so if they should happen to be fragile or needing support in some way they could be just as qualified to receive it as anyone else.     

Hanna Rosin is the founder of DoubleX and a writer for the Atlantic. She is also the author of The End of Men. Follow her on Twitter.

TODAY IN SLATE

Medical Examiner

The Most Terrifying Thing About Ebola 

The disease threatens humanity by preying on humanity.

I Bought the Huge iPhone. I’m Already Thinking of Returning It.

Scotland Is Just the Beginning. Expect More Political Earthquakes in Europe.

Students Aren’t Going to College Football Games as Much Anymore

And schools are getting worried.

Two Damn Good, Very Different Movies About Soldiers Returning From War

The XX Factor

Lifetime Didn’t Think the Steubenville Rape Case Was Dramatic Enough

So they added a little self-immolation.

Politics

Blacks Don’t Have a Corporal Punishment Problem

Americans do. But when blacks exhibit the same behaviors as others, it becomes part of a greater black pathology. 

Why a Sketch of Chelsea Manning Is Stirring Up Controversy

How Worried Should Poland, the Baltic States, and Georgia Be About a Russian Invasion?

Trending News Channel
Sept. 19 2014 1:11 PM Watch Flashes of Lightning Created in a Lab  
  News & Politics
Weigel
Sept. 20 2014 11:13 AM -30-
  Business
Business Insider
Sept. 20 2014 6:30 AM The Man Making Bill Gates Richer
  Life
Quora
Sept. 20 2014 7:27 AM How Do Plants Grow Aboard the International Space Station?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 19 2014 4:58 PM Steubenville Gets the Lifetime Treatment (And a Cheerleader Erupts Into Flames)
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 19 2014 12:00 PM What Happened at Slate This Week? The Slatest editor tells us to read well-informed skepticism, media criticism, and more.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Sept. 20 2014 3:21 PM “The More You Know (About Black People)” Uses Very Funny PSAs to Condemn Black Stereotypes
  Technology
Future Tense
Sept. 19 2014 6:31 PM The One Big Problem With the Enormous New iPhone
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 20 2014 7:00 AM The Shaggy Sun
  Sports
Sports Nut
Sept. 18 2014 11:42 AM Grandmaster Clash One of the most amazing feats in chess history just happened, and no one noticed.